The Art of The 180: 6 Artists that Successfully Reinvented Their Sound

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Artists can completely transform in front of your eyes. One day it’s rock, the next day it’s rap, tomorrow it’s country.

It’s not uncommon—And it’s usually for a pretty relatable reason…

Sometimes musicians have to change everything about the way they approach making music to keep their process rewarding.

If you’ve ever struggled to create new, interesting music but were afraid to switch things up, you’re not alone.

These examples of huge musical transformation are proof that big changes are tough, but can inspire some incredible musical ideas.

Here’s six stories that will help you embrace changes—big and small—in your own approach to creating.

Derek Miller – From metal guitarist to noise pop producer and instrumentalist

What does the hardcore outfit Poison The Well and critically acclaimed indie noise pop duo Sleigh Bells have in common?

Multi-talented musician, songwriter and producer Derek Miller.

Growing up in south Florida, Miller picked up the guitar and joined Poison The Well in the late 90s. A few years late, Miller broke ties with the group.

Eventually, his love for George Michael, Madonna and Michael Jackson led Miller towards a fascinating musical transition to his Sleigh Bells project.

Sleigh Bells’ four albums preserve Miller’s energetic hardcore roots while leveraging tools like drum machines and distorted vocals to create music that’s both manic and rewarding to listen to—proof that songwriting and musical fulfilment doesn’t have to be bound by genre.

Joni Mitchell – Folk songwriter to jazz and experimental pioneer

After a decade of meticulously crafting gorgeous folk music, Joni Mitchell started finding massive success in the mid 70s. She won two Grammy Awards, released the critically acclaimed albums Ladies of The Canyon and Blue, which is now regarded one of the best albums of all time.

And then at the height of her career, she ditched pop and folk completely to focus on a love for Jazz.

Mitchell explored songs with less conventional structures that incorporated a wider range of instruments and a sound closer to some of her influences.

Bored with her music-making formula, Mitchell wanted to explore songs with less conventional structures that incorporated a wider range of instruments.

With an intrepid spirit, Mitchell’s jazz period involved things like early music sampling and collaborations with jazz greats like Charles Mingus and Jaco Pastorius.

Mitchell’s transformation allowed her to remain creatively engaged and interested for decades. She went on to create music exploring experimental pop, rock, folk and jazz for the next 30 years.

Bob Dylan – From folk icon to controversial electric guitar-wielding rocker

Bob Dylan’s transition from acoustic to electric caused one of the most storied moments in rock history: the infamous boos heard around the world at the 1965 Newport Festival.

Bob Dylan’s transition from acoustic to electric caused one of the most storied moments in rock history: the infamous boos heard around the world at the 1965 Newport Festival.

In the mid-60’s, Dylan was seen as the American folk music revival’s fearless and uncompromising leader.

So when he began performing, and eventually recording with a full band, non-distorted electric guitars and swirling organs, huge factions of his audience we’re less than thrilled.

Dylan’s transition from acoustic to electric sounds may tame to our modern ears, but it was an unforgivable betrayal to many in his audience back in the 60’s.

Even so, Dylan’s willingness to incorporate new modern sounds and tools in his work remains inspiring. Even in the face of alienating his audience, he did it anyway and made the music he was interested in no matter what the consequences were at the time.

Today, artists are often criticized for trading in guitars for synthesizers, but Dylan’s transformation shows that similar musical controversies have been happening for a long time.

Dylan’s curveball solidified his legacy as a monolithic figure in rock that endures today. His tumultuous turn to electric is a mere blip on a legendary and fascinating career.

Taylor Swift: From Nashville country to genre-bending popstar

Taylor Swift’s transformation from country to all things pop might seem like a masterfully plotted career move, but for Swift, it was more of a natural evolution.

With stadium-ready synths and 808 beats, Swift’s album 1989 sounds a universe away from her old pop country playbook, and 2017’s Reputation stretches her newly adopted pop identity even further.

Though she probably lost some fans during the transition, Swift’s chart-topping take on pop wildly succeeded by most accounts.

Whether it was a career decision or a fearless intuitive songwriting transformation doesn’t matter when you consider that doing the same thing over and over again in music usually doesn’t work.

Damon Albarn – From lead singer to comic book

Damon Albarn is leading one of popular music’s most interesting and successful careers thanks to his willingness to take risks and transform as an artist.

Formed in the early 90’s, his first project Blur was a big success in its own right. Influenced by The Beatles and The Kinks, the guitar-driven outfit earned wide acclaim and an avid fanbase.

But In 1998 Albarn flipped the switch when he formed Gorillaz with his friend Jamie Hewlett, a comic book artist.

Embracing sounds from hip hop, electronica and funk, Gorillaz present their music through a fascinating fictional universe for audiences to explore not only through music but also music videos, animated shorts and interviews—a far cry from the straightforward rock of Blur.

With catchy synth work and masterful beat-making, a major defining element of the band’s sound is borne through a spirit of collaboration. The project’s canon features everyone from Snoop Dogg to Mavis Staples.

Albarn’s openness to transformation not only gave his music access to new genres and collaborations, it also redefined what a band is and can be today.

Brian Wilson – From good mannered Beach Boy to seminal studio wizard

It’s hard to believe now, but when Pet Sounds came out in 1966, critics didn’t care for it. The world is now well aware of Wilson’s genius, but that wasn’t the case in the late 60’s…

The world is now well aware of Wilson’s genius, but that wasn’t the case in the late 60’s…

With Pet Sounds, Wilson set out to create the greatest rock album ever made through a complete musical statement. That meant no filler tracks and a ton of studio-oriented experimentation.

His bandmates urged him to keep things simple to sell more records and make playing live easy, but Wilson’ refused to compromise.

Instead, Wilson decided to move away from music built for live performance and set his sights on moving deeper into the possibilities of the modern recording studio.

Pet Sounds is now thought of as the first concept album in terms of musical production. Inspired by Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” concept, Wilson’s production and songwriting on the album reflects an obsession with textures created through combining sounds and pioneering studio techniques.

Pet Sounds embraces everything from jazz to psychedelia, setting the stage for the progressive chamber pop that shapes a large part of the musical landscape today.

Wilson’s unwavering need to push the boundaries of recording, gave rise to the studio-as-an-instrument ethos that continues to drive imaginations of bedroom producers everywhere.

Sound it out

Change is good. Don’t let genres and habits hold you back from exploring everything production and songwriting have to offer.

The stories behind these pivots prove that music and the creative process can benefit from a little shake-up every now and then…

Changes—big or small—can make a difference. Switch something up for yourself and see what happens.

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